Jason Pierce recorded the 2008 album “Songs in A&E” with his band Spiritualized after a near-death experience three years earlier. A bacterial infection coupled with pneumonia resulted respiratory failure and Pierce, who was then 30 years old, was placed in the Royal London Hospital’s Accident & Emergency ward, roughly the equivalent of intensive-care unit in the U.S. His heart stopped beating at least twice and he lost 98 pounds. Regaining his life, not his career, was his biggest challenge.
Upon his recovery, Pierce revisited songs he had written prior to his illness and saw that several foreshadowed his experience. With some reluctance, he and the band proceeded and “Songs in A&E” was the result. It’s a moving recording, both intimate and somewhat grand. Knowing Pierce’s harrowing backstory added to the sense of pathos, but the tale was affecting even without the context.
In their previous five studio albums, Pierce and Spiritualized revealed a taste for spacey psychedelica – in 1997, they issued “Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space,” their most successful recording prior to “Songs in A&E” – and under the name J Spaceman, Pierce released experimental music. But folk, gospel, orchestral music and soul also informed the band’s sound, all of which shaped “Songs in A&E.” “Sweet Talk” was a folk-based tune enriched by Ben Edwards’s mournful trumpet. A track that faded in slowly and never seemed to fully arrive, “Yeah Yeah” was rooted in rock ‘n’ roll boogie while the seven-minute “Baby I’m Just A Fool” featured a chugging acoustic guitar and a swooning fiddle before the band exploded with brass and a careening flute. David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust period influenced “I Gotta Fire,” which was propelled by clacking percussion and waves of wah-wah guitars.
Fire as much as death was a reoccurring theme on “Songs in A&E.” “Soul on Fire” was a weary tune that grew massive behind the power of a string section and choir and featured the phrase “I’ve got a hurricane inside my veins and I want to stay forever.” In the ballad “Sitting On Fire,” he sang: “So hard to fight when you’re losing/And I’ve got a little tear in my soul/In my own time I am dying.”
Following the release of “Songs in A&E,” Pierce led Spiritualized as it performed “Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space” in full in concert at the Sydney Opera House, Radio City Music Hall and elsewhere. But he’s never fully recovered his health. Prior to the release of the band’s 2012 album, “Sweet Heart Sweet Light,” he underwent chemotherapy to treat a liver disorder. It was “pretty gruesome,” he told me. “I could work one hour a day, or one hour a week." He rallied and the band toured behind that album. They played last year’s Glastonbury Festival and Pierce seemed in fine form. (The set is available on YouTube.)
Recorded in the shadow of death, “Songs in A&E” presented Pierce as drained but not depleted and determined to document his experience. As it moved from fragility to full power, “Songs in A&E” served as a testament to Pierce’s enduring talent, even when it was challenged at the most fundamental level.